Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

What About Stoning Adulterers, Then?

From Iran comes news that a 30-year-old man convicted of adultery has been stoned to death while his partner in “crime” was spared on account of her having repented. The Reuters story notes:

According to Iran’s Islamic penal code, men convicted of adultery should be buried up to their waists and women up to their chests for stoning. Stones used should not be large enough to kill the person immediately.

My subjective response is one thing — disgust at the barbarity of the Islamic Republic, resentment as a Jew that Islamic fundamentalism seems intent on representing a grotesquely distorted, fun-house mirror version of Biblical jurisprudence, which includes stoning too, of course. But I always try to encourage you to step back from subjective responses.
The Hebrew Bible, amplified by the Talmud, indeed legislates stoning, and burning, and beheading, and strangulation for various crimes including seemingly lesser ones than adultery. What are we to make of this?


First, being objective means not being simple-minded. You have to look at the whole canvas of Jewish jurisprudence, not only isolated verses or disembodied Talmudic passages. In the Iranian government’s version of Islam, it is as if someone went through the Bible and picked out the scariest parts, then moronically went about writing them directly into modern practical law.
For the fact is that, given all the incredibly onerous evidentiary and other requirements placed on the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin, it would be just about totally impossible actually to convict anyone of such a capital crime. I go into the reasons for this in the second chapter of How Would God Vote? When it comes to capital crimes, Biblical “theocracy” would be remarkably toothless and ineffective. That is, of course, by design.
It is also why Jewish law provides a separate criminal track, effectively secular in nature, stemming from the authority of the king. The king, unlike the Sanhedrin, could get things done.
So why the whole structure of a theocratic jurisprudence that turns out to be almost completely theoretical, never intended to be the basis of a Jewish nation’s whole practical legal system? Why do Jews study these laws so intensively if we acknowledge that they have little real-life application?
I think the answer goes back to what I was saying the other day about how in Judaism, philosophy emerges from the law rather than, as in other faiths, the other way around. The relationship is like that between the brain and the mind, as they used to be understood, with the spiritual mind emerging from the physical substrate of the brain.
A whole system of values emerges from these seemingly arcane laws. That’s where Jewish values come from — from, among other sources, just such discussions of crime and punishment. 

Not just generic “values,” either. Many, many times I’ve heard gifted rabbis reveal mind-blowingly important lessons about life, reality, and spirituality from just such “irrelevant” points of law.

Why God chose that particular substrate, I don’t know, but it’s of relevance to many areas of life besides sins that theoretically could be punished by the Sanhedrin. Most of us have not committed adultery. But most, if not all, of us have committed other sins worthy of death.
In the Yom Kippur liturgy, every Jew asks forgiveness “for the sins for which we incur the penalty of the four forms of capital punishment executed by the Court,” but also “for the sins for which we incur the penalty of death by the hand of Heaven.”
Did your nice little Jewish (or non-Jewish) grandmother, so sweet and harmless, every do a thing remotely so terrible? If not, then why put this liturgy in the hands of every single Jew who observes and prays on Yom Kippur?
In fact, the Talmud and other traditional sources describe many “small” offenses as making the offender “worthy of death.” A Torah scholar who goes about carelessly with food on his clothing, exposing Torah to ridicule by his slovenly appearance, is considered “worthy of death” by the hand of Heaven. Anger is compared to idol worship, a crime punishable by court-imposed execution. Gossip is compared to murder, again a death-penalty offense. One could give many other examples.
Again, I don’t know why Biblical and rabbinic tradition uses this particular method of imparting values, along with many other much more upbeat methods, but that is the function of Scriptural discussions of executing adulterers and other unlikely criminals.
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posted May 5, 2009 at 10:04 pm

The main thing we learn from what the Talmud does with capital punishment is that the Rabbis were bothered by a lot of the same things we “moderns” are bothered by. So maybe we aren’t as far from the Tradition as we think we are.

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posted May 6, 2009 at 4:23 pm

The Talmud, in its authority for Jews, cannot be compared to the Koran and the Hadith in their authority for Moslems. ALl Moslems consider the Koran to be the literal word of Allah, and, therefore sacrosanct. The sayings of Muhammad are also held to be sacrosanct by religious Moslems. The Talmud, on the other hand, is not God speaking; not even Moses speaking. The Talmud, therefore, is not legally binding upon Jews. The Koran is legally binding on Moslems wherever the Islamic religious authorities have the power to enforce it.

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Mere Catholic

posted May 6, 2009 at 9:28 pm

One of my Muslim friends, who is very devout in her practice of Islam, including wearing the Hijab, once told me that Sharia law specifies very certain conditions for stoning. These apparently include that four witnesses who have never lied be independent witnesses to the physical act of adultery. Of course, one can object that such a law even exists but the end effect of these restrictions would be to render stoning near impossible. I don’t know if anyone can attest to my friend’s explanation, but if true would seem to indicate that there are practices in modern Islamic states that are beyond those proscribed by the religion itself.

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Your Name

posted May 7, 2009 at 9:05 am

Sure, after all the (heterosexual, shurely!) adulterers are stoned to death, then we could also put our disobedient children to death, put the victims of incest to death, etc. – just like “The Bible” (TM) tells us to.
Sure is a lot o’ killin’ goin’ o with the religious.

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